Jack May's visit to the Verdi Canyon Railroad

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Jack May's visit to the Verdi Canyon Railroad
Posted by daveklepper on Sunday, February 04, 2018 2:51 AM

Thursday, April 20.  Today was another day where our friends and we had different itineraries.  They were planning to visit relatives in Prescott, about 60 miles west of Sedona, while we were going to ride the Verde Canyon Railroad, which starts in Clarkdale, a little less than halfway (23 miles) along the route to Prescott.

Since our excursion wasn't scheduled until 1 p.m., and because I thought Sig and Cathy would want to get going early in the morning, while I was still at home prior to the trip I went to the internet to see if I could use public transportation to get from our Sedona motel to the railroad station.  I suspected it might be difficult, but as it turned out I found it would involve only two regional bus rides, as the town of Cottonwood, about halfway between Sedona and Clarkdale, operates an extensive transit system (extensive in the sense that Cottonwood has a population of less than 12,000 people--which is greater than Sedona's 10,000).  A service called Verde Lynx operates 7 days per week between Sedona and Cottonwood with about a dozen weekday round trips (roughly every 45 minutes to an hour during base periods), taking about 43 minutes for a one-way trip from end to end.  There are 15 stops, including several in downtown Sedona and one was close by our motel (see http://cottonwoodaz.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1224).

The City of Cottonwood also operates a local system, called CAT (Cottonwood Area Transit - http://cottonwoodaz.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/135) that consists of a network of four color-coded routes that connect with each other and Verde Lynx at a transfer point adjacent to the town's library.  Three of the lines operate every 45 minutes with the Red route running to Clarkdale, taking about a half hour for a loop-like round trip.  Fares on both bus lines are incredibly cheap, $1.25 one way and only 50 cents for seniors.

With our train scheduled to depart from Clarkdale at 1 o'clock, we decided to take the 11:20 bus from the stop near our Sedona motel to Cottonwood, which would arrive at 11:53 and connect with the 12:00 bus to Clarkdale, a 24-minute trip.  From a map it looked like the railway station was not too far from the bus stop, but I had no idea about how easy or difficult the walk would be (are there steep grades), so I called the Verde Canyon Railroad to ask about the availability of taxis; they very kindly volunteered to send a complimentary car to pick us up at the bus stop if we called upon our arrival.  For our return trip, Sig and Cathy would pick us up at 5 p.m. after leaving Prescott.

Anyway, that all turned out to be moot, because Sig and Cathy decided they wanted to go shopping in downtown Sedona in the morning and therefore they would be able to drop us off at the Verde Canyon railroad station around lunch time.  Thus my experiment with public transit did not take place, which was a minor disappointment.  But on the other hand the chance of anything going wrong would be substantially reduced.  So we all spent the morning window- and regular-shopping in Sedona, and drove off at about 11:30, which got us to the depot at about 12:15.

Clare and I had ridden the Verde Canyon on our 2009 trip to Arizona, but since we enjoy absorbing mountain scenery from trains, we wanted to do it again.  What became the Verde Canyon Railroad was built in 1912 as a branch line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to connect its mainline with copper mines in the area (specifically at Jerome) and a smelter refining the ore in Clarkdale.  Thirty-eight miles long, it actually ran from the Santa Fe's Ash Fork-Phoenix line at Drake, which is some 18 miles south of the Los Angeles-Chicago mainline, to Clarkdale.  [I rode in a Phoenix-Chicago sleeper over that north-south line in 1961 from Phoenix to New York via the Chief and Twentieth Century Limited on the return portion of a business trip (my outbound route was the Broadway Limited and Golden State)].  In 1989 the Santa Fe sold the Drake-Clarkdale branch to a private individual, who began operating it as the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad, a short line freight carrier.  One year later the AZCR added passenger service to cover the scenic portion of the line, 20 miles, from Clarkdale (milepost 38) to Perkinsville (milepost 18), as the Verde Canyon Railroad.  Since then the Santa Fe merged with the Burlington Northern to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, and so the AZCR's connection at Drake
for freight originating in the canyon is now the BNSF.

Over the years the passenger operation has become quite successful, carrying as many as 100,000 riders per annum.  The Clarkdale station, with its ticket office, gift shop, museum and snack bar, is a modern, clean and inviting facility; no doubt large sums have been invested to create a first rate tourist operation.  The personnel, both on and off the train, are friendly and hospitable.

I had no trouble picking up the tickets I had reserved and paid for through the railroad's website
($59.95 senior rate plus tax each).  We were assigned to the coach, "Tucson," which was toward the rear of the train.  Two back-to-back EMD FP-7s, No. 1512 and 1510, which originally operated on the Alaska Railroad, pulled the 18-car consist.  The locomotives were followed by a power unit, 16 passenger cars and a caboose.  The 16 cars consisted of 10 heritage-type lightweight air-conditioned coaches and 6 open flat cars, arranged so that one of the open units was placed between a pair of coaches, C-O-C-C-O-C-C-O-C-C-O-C-C-O-C-O.  Thus each open unit served passengers from two coaches, except the last, which was for the occupants of the caboose.  Of the 10 coaches, 8 were configured for first class passengers and 2 for lowly coach riders like us.  Passengers cannot walk through the entire train, being limited to their assigned three-car set.

Our car was configured with standard 2-and-2 commuter-style soft seats, which could be reversed to allow groups of four to sit together, as well as to face forward in whichever direction the train would be moving, as at Perkinsville the locomotives run around the consist before returning to Clarkdale.  These cars can seat up to 75, but there were less than that number on our trip, which made it feel quite commodious.  The first class cars have very comfortable leather or upholstered seats, arranged 2-and-1, in groups of 4 or 2 with tables in between.  An attractive full-service bar is located at one end.  Both types of cars are air-conditioned and have spotless toilet facilities.  For the extra $25 it costs to travel in first class ($30 for seniors as there is no senior first class fare), complimentary cold and warm hors d'oeuvres and soft drinks are provided, and a full range of alcoholic beverages may be purchased from the bar.  Snacks (potato chips, etc.) and soft drinks are sold by car attendants in coach.  The open air cars have canopies to provide shade and are equipped with back-to-back longitudinal benches facing outward.  Each also has an attendant.  The caboose may just as easily called an observation car, as it has an open end platform and contains luxury parlor car-style accommodations inside for as many as 6 passengers.  It is sold for a flat rate of $700, but it is up against the engines on the return trip.

We found a pair of seats in our car, but spent most of our time in the adjacent open air unit, enjoying the scenery and the fine 75-degree weather.  We could clearly hear the narration, which was not the least bit intrusive.  After pulling out of the Clarkdale station exactly on the advertised (1 p.m.), we passed some slag heaps and the remains of the smelter, and, of course, the AZCR's yard, where I saw an EMD switcher, either a GP7 or GP9.

Soon we were in the canyon, and as we continued it got narrower and narrower, with red sandstone walls rising above us--but never to the extent of Glenwood Canyon on the former Denver and Rio Grande Western.  In fact that stretch of railroad, now served by Amtrak's California Zephyr, plus the Canadian Pacific through the rockies (Banff/Lake Louise, spiral tunnels), and the Chihuahua Pacifico (Copper Canyon route) through the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico* are my benchmarks for the best in North American standard gauge rail scenery; the Verde Canyon does not reach those spectacular heights--but it still is very pleasant with a number of dramatically craggy views.  And speaking of views, whenever something interesting was in sight, the narrator pointed out exactly where it could be found, which was especially appreciated with respect to spotting bald eagles, and occasionally, bald eagle nests.  We were told that there's a good reason the bald eagle is our national emblem--specifically because of the bird's long life, great strength and especially its majestic looks.


* Even though the Canadian has been moved to CN rails, you can still ride over the CP through the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer, and over the ChP aboard El Chepe, which stops for about 15 minutes to allow passengers to walk to the edge of the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon).

As mentioned earlier, the portion of the line covered by the excursion is 20 miles long.  The train tended to run at a speed of about 10 to 15 miles per hour, and after our 1:00 p.m. departure from Clarkdale we arrived in Perkinsville at 2:40.  We were halted for about 20 minutes while our locomotives ran around the train and coupled up again, with announcements made to the effect that passengers must stay aboard.  Our arrival back at Clarkdale was at 4:45 p.m., some 15 minutes before the advertised 5 o'clock return time.

I am asking others who received Jack's emailing to post the photos, or I can post them when the edit button is returned to me.

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